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Immigrant rights advocates in Houston lauded a judge’s Feb. 29 decision to halt a law making it a state crime to enter Texas illegally. But the legal fight is just beginning, they warned.

“I would like to call this a joyous occasion, but it's a mixed-feeling occasion,” said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of Familias Inmigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha, known as FIEL, at a press conference Friday.

“On the one hand, we are happy that SB 4 has been stopped from taking effect on March 5. On the other hand, we want to make sure that we caution everybody and that we remind ourselves that we still have a long road ahead.”

The law, known as Senate Bill 4, was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in December and was immediately challenged by the ACLU and Department of Justice on constitutional grounds. While awaiting a judge’s ruling to issue a preliminary injunction, immigrant rights organizations have been preparing immigrant communities through Know Your Rights workshops.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge David Ezra, who was appointed in 1988 by then-President Ronald Reagan, issued a preliminary injunction preventing SB 4 from taking effect, on the grounds that immigration enforcement falls to the federal government.

Espinosa, who stood with local religious and political leaders at Friday’s news conference, welcomed the temporary reprieve from SB 4. But FIEL and its partners are now bracing for a prolonged legal battle that could go all the way up to the Supreme Court. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately filed an appeal after the injunction was issued, which will send the lawsuit to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gov. Abbott said in a statement Thursday that Texas “will not back down.”

“Texas has the right to defend itself because of President Biden's ongoing failure to fulfill his duty to protect our state from the invasion at our southern border,” Abbott said.

FIEL lawyer Roberto Quijano said he was optimistic that the injunction would stay in place as the case weaves its way through the court system, a process that could take months or years.

“For now, it's enjoined and we'll take that victory and keep fighting,” Quijano said.

Katharina Dechert, Houston policy and advocacy manager at the Tahirih Justice Center, a nonprofit that works with immigrant survivors of gender-based violence, agreed that the injunction was a positive first step, but she worried that it will have a lasting “chilling effect” whether or not it stands.

“Knowing that law enforcement may be empowered to arrest people for lack of status is going to discourage people from reporting crimes,” said Dechert. “It's going to contribute to the control that abusers, traffickers, or others have over survivors who are experiencing violence.”

Adriana, 53, an immigrant who has lived in Houston for 17 years and asked to be identified by only her first name because of her immigration status, felt some relief when she heard about the injunction. As a cancer survivor with several doctor’s appointments, she relies on her kids to drive her around, so she was worried about how the law would affect them all.

“I completely depend on my kids, so if something happens to them, I would be helpless,” she said at a protest on Tuesday outside the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

The injunction gives her some ease, but she knows the fight is not over.

“We’re still waiting on a definitive no,” she said via text on Friday.

Brenda Hernandez speaks during a press conference at the FIEL office on Friday, March 1, 2024, in Houston. A judge issued a preliminary injunction to halt SB4 from going into effect on March 5. (Annie Mulligan for Abdelraoufsinno)

Brenda Hernandez, an immigrant who spoke at the Friday press conference, also welcomed the halting of the law.

“This law affects all Latinos,” said Hernandez. “The fear that we have is because we have kids.”

She encouraged others to organize against the law.

“For the moment, it’s blocked, but I think that we have to keep coming together and asking – more than anything to God – that it is taken away and eliminated completely,” Hernandez said.

As the legal challenges against SB 4 advance through the appeals process, FIEL encouraged immigrants to keep educating themselves.

“We are cautiously optimistic that SB 4 has been stopped at this moment,” Espinosa said. “Whether there is an SB 4 or not, we want to make sure that people know their rights, that they are prepared to face immigration at any point, especially if they don't have status.”

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Anna-Catherine (Anna-Cat) Brigida is the immigration reporter for Abdelraoufsinno. A Boston native, she began reporting on immigration as a journalism student at USC Annenberg in Los Angeles. Before joining...